September 27, 2020

Media Decoder Blog: Cable Channels Set to Begin Election Year Coverage

5:17 p.m. | Updated America’s trifecta of cable news channels, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, are just about ready to show off their election year staffs.

Each channel plans to cover the one-night Iowa caucus for a stretch of several days, maximizing both their investments in the state and the ratings potential of a Republican presidential campaign.

On caucus night, Jan. 3, each channel will replace its usual prime time schedule with special reports. The extensive coverage plans highlight the importance of politics to the bottom lines of the cable news channels.

Past ratings indicate that the more seriously the channels treat events like the Iowa caucus, the more viewers tune in. So the networks are starting early.

Candy Crowley, the chief political correspondent for CNN, will report from Iowa starting Wednesday. Chris Matthews will anchor his MSNBC show, “Hardball,” from there starting Thursday, and the MSNBC anchors Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell will be there starting Friday.

But the coverage will be most visible starting Sunday, when the weekly public affairs programs like “Fox News Sunday,” anchored by Chris Wallace, and “State of the Union,” anchored by Ms. Crowley, will emanate from the state. On Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern, both Fox and CNN will have caucus previews.

On Monday, the day before the caucus, more cable anchors will plant themselves in Iowa, including the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith and the cast of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Sean Hannity also will have his radio show and prime time Fox show there.

A new generation of anchors have stepped up since the last presidential election, so the coverage this year will look quite different than it did on Iowa caucus night in 2008. Back then, Brit Hume and Mr. Wallace led Fox’s coverage; this time, the co-anchors will be Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly.

They will both be in Iowa beginning Sunday. On Tuesday, they will be on from 8 to 11 p.m.; Mr. Hannity will then be on until midnight.

Similarly, in 2008, Keith Olbermann and Mr. Matthews led MSNBC’s coverage; this time, Rachel Maddow will be the main anchor, joined by Mr. Matthews and the channel’s other three prime time hosts, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

They will be on from 6 p.m. until midnight; then Chris Hayes, a weekend host, will be on until 1 a.m.

Current TV, the upstart competitor to MSNBC, has scheduled four hours of special caucus coverage on Tuesday starting at 7 p.m.

CNN’s top two anchors back in 2008, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, will be on again this year, but joined this time by Erin Burnett, who joined the network earlier this year from CNBC. They will also be joined by Ms. Crowley and John King, who will be stationed at his “Magic Wall.”

They will be on from 7 p.m. to midnight, when Piers Morgan will take over for an hour.

CNN, which generally is lower rated than Fox or MSNBC, but benefits from big periods of breaking news, seems to be positioning itself as a nonpartisan option for viewers who perceive Fox to favor Republicans and MSNBC to favor Democrats.

In a news release on Wednesday, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, said, “As the only cable news channel that has not chosen a side in this election, CNN will tap into the expertise of our anchors, reporters and analysts to equip viewers with information to decide for themselves about the candidates.”

The main anchors for the network news divisions also will be in Iowa for the caucus. Additionally, CBS says that Bob Schieffer, the Sunday morning “Face the Nation” host, will be an anchor on “The Early Show” on the morning of the caucus. “The Early Show” is being replaced a few days later by a new morning program called “CBS This Morning.”

CNN, meanwhile, is using the caucus to introduce its new morning team. On Tuesday, Ashleigh Banfield and Zoraida Sambolin will start their new 5 to 7 a.m. shift, and Soledad O’Brien will start her new 7 to 9 a.m. shift.

The public affairs network C-SPAN has already started talking about the caucus; its morning call-in program, “Washington Journal,” was transplanted to Des Moines on Wednesday morning and will stay there through next Tuesday.

On the actual caucus night, C-SPAN and its sister channel C-SPAN2 will televise caucus events in central and western Iowa, respectively. C-SPAN will show results, speeches and reactions afterward.

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